written by Kelly Hogaboom; originally published at Underbellie
I love what my mom brings in assisting my husband and me in parenting our kids. What she’s bringing mostly lately is Billy Ocean. In the last week whenever I go over to pick up my children after a playdate, she and the kids are singing to or watching the video of his hit single, “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”.
I’m a fan of several of Billy Ocean’s songs (okay, especially “Loverboy,” and although I love belting that one out I feel compelled to point out that is a bad 80s video decision in an era of very bad videos). “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” makes me laugh a little, though, because it’s a perfect example of my now-and-then mixtapes containing deliciously and unintentionally creepy pop music* – you know, a seemingly cheerful or romantic tune that, if you listen closely, actually features chillingly stalker-like lyrics. Other songs of Mr. Ocean’s qualify, by the way (see below). And tangentially: my current favorite and recently-discovered honoree in this fake genre is Dusty Springfield’s “I’ll Try Anything” (“I want you so much inside / I’m throwin’ away all my conscience and pride!”).**
Back to the aforementioned song: last night in my mother’s living room my seven year old daughter, after about the eighth consecutive listen to this catchy tune, approached my mother and asked, “Grandma? How come in this video there’s a white woman, and she gets into a black man’s car?” My mom responded, “Well, why not?” and Sophie stalled. Then I said, “Sophie, if I’m correct in what I hear you’ve observed, I will say it’s true that many people date within their race, but that doesn’t mean everyone does, or that you have to.” My daughter nodded, watching me. “Besides,” I added, “I don’t think that woman was a ‘white woman’, she looked like a light-skinned black woman to me.” At this my daughter said, “Ooohhhh…” in that whole, I’m-getting-the-picture way she has.
And that was a window of opportunity, out of the blue, to talk a bit about the complexities of race in today’s America. After our handful of sentences, Sophie’s curiosity was sated while for a few additional moments my mind raced over several subjects: the differences in portrayals of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned black women in television and film, paper bag tests, colorism, the Jezebel stereotype, and “brightening creams” among a handful of other less-formed thoughts. But it was 11:30 at night, we were coming off a party, and the kid had already ran into the kitchen to grab up a slice of pound cake.
Of course, discussions on race, sex, gender, homophobia and social justice take place regularly in my household (as well as discussions on cooking, cleaning, eating, trees, fish, polygons, scotch-tape under a microscope, iPod holders built out of Legos… you get the idea); but the “big issues” discussions are mostly conversations between my husband and I. The kids overhear most of this, if they decide to listen in, and partake when they feel they have a point to make. They sometimes look over my shoulder at what I’m reading (or writing), and not a movie viewing goes by (we don’t own a television) that Ralph and I aren’t either off-handedly or seriously discussing, say, the White Savior elements in a storyline, or the mansplaining arrogant scientist in our beloved old B-movies, or the tropes of the mincing, silly gay man and the menacing lesbian (no really, these things are still alive and well in so many films!)
So it’s not that I’m saying social subjects only come up this handful of precious times, like last night. What I will say is, it’s a rare and lovely opportunity when the kid herself discovers something about the world – something seemingly understated and normative to our peer group even – and asks about it. Her mind is open in that moment and she is ready for a piece of the puzzle; such a gift, considering how much else she absorbs without being fully conscious of it (and some of these socially atmospheric messages are decidedly not-so-great). My mother’s response (“Why shouldn’t white and black people date one another?”) was a correct one; however, what I know my daughter had perceived was that the world is often not a Sesame Street-esque mix of people all getting along and mixing their crayon sets together; so I think, in that light, my response was a correct one as well – especially given previous and pending family choices deliberately seeking anti-racist goals.
I’m impressed by my seven- year-old daughter, who notices all sorts of things about the behavior of people in the world. As any reader of my blog or personal friend of the family will know, she is very intuitive and perceives subtleties, which will serve her well in her life. Because maybe a thing I fear greatly is to accidentally pass on a “colorblind” ideology – like that espoused by so many others I know and, to some extent, my own family of origin (Oh my gosh! I could talk about the liberal and “colorblind” white family so much! Like how they will repeatedly say the same little things like, “You know, these are called ‘Brazil nuts’ – people USED to call them n**-toes, but we don’t do that any more” and “So-and-so, our black friend”, with that special way they’d say the phrase that is eerily like that special way they say “homosexual”. As in, “I am pointing out the race/sexuality of this person in a way that tells you I’m such a Special Progressive Person for being okay with their race/sexuality”). So anyway, the “colorblind” upbringing, you know, “the world is full of people of all colors of the rainbow, and we all live together happily, wheeee!” I find this sort of thing profoundly lacking (although well-intentioned and partially valid, blah blah), especially when raising a child who has a mind and a heart, and can see deeply – but not always interpret what she sees.
As someone she seeks for guidelines – sometimes quite directly – I don’t want to mess up, but neither do I want to worry too much about being the Perfect Parent in any of these surprise child-initiated conversations – because I have to believe I influence her every day, even when we’re not directly discussing a social issue. But if she asks, I’m not going to piss on her leg and tell her it’s raining, either.
I owe her better than that.